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Morse's Patent on the Telegraph

We're going back a bit, to June 20, 1840, when Samuel Morse's patent, U.S. Patent No. 1,647, issued for his “American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.”

Professor Morse's "Lightning." Morse is probably most remembered for developing his code, the dots and dashes known as Morse code, that became the primary method for transmitting letters and numbers via telegraphy. But his telegraph system, as described in the 1840 patent and successfully demonstrated in 1844 over a line between Washington DC and Baltimore (the first message exclaiming “What Hath God Wrought”), brought Morse fame as a heroic inventor capable of harnessing a force of nature (electricity) and putting it to work over vast distances. The speed of communications was no longer limited by the speed of horses or ships; information could now travel as fast as lightning.

System of Repeaters. The patent describes Morse's key innovation of “connecting and using any desired number of additional and intervening batteries or generators of said current, and for connecting progressively any number of consecutive currents” (essentially, using repeaters) to overcome the problem of transmitting signals more than a few hundred yards.  According to the patent, electromagnetic registers could by placed at the end of each circuit to “produce[] an additional and original power or current of electricity . . . ad infinitum.” Thus, before a transmitted signal degraded into noise, each successive register would boost the signal to its original amplitude, thereby allowing the signal to be transmitted over great distances.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision - Priority.  In 1854, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of O'Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 62 (1854), and declared Morse “the first and original inventor” of the electromagnetic telegraphs described in his patents. The Court found that Morse completed his invention “early in the Spring of 1837” and prior to competing inventions by Steinhiel in Germany (May or June 1837), Wheatstone in London (April 1837), or Davy in London (January 1839). As we saw in a prior post involving the telephone, others were simultaneously at work on this monumental invention.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision - Abstract Idea. Patent lawyers are familiar with another aspect of the Morse decision. Although, the Court ruled in Morse's favor on most claims, the Court found one of his asserted patent claims “too broad, and not warrented by law.” In 1848, Morse reissued his original patent as U.S. Reissue Patent No. 117 and included the following extremely broad Claim 8:

I do not propose to limit myself to the specific machinery or parts of machinery described in the foregoing specification and claims; the essence of my invention being the use of the motive power of the electric or galvanic current, which I call electro-magnetism, however developed for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters, at any distances, being a new  application of that power of which I claim to be the first inventor or discoverer.

The Supreme Court remarked that “[i]f this claim can be maintained, it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished." Reasoning that just as no one can claim the exclusive right to use the motive power of steam to propel vessels, grind corn, spin cotton, or operate a printing press, Morse cannot be granted a monopoly over the use of electromagnetism to print at a distance. The Court concluded that what Morse was seeking was a patent for a principle in natural philosophy or physical science, but a principle is not patentable. The Supreme Court continues to rely on its Morse decision in patent eligibility cases for the proposition that “[l]aws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 573 U.S. 208, 216 (2014).


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